November 2009

Careers in Motion


Ask any astrophysicist to describe the “two-body problem,” and the answer will involve orbiting celestial bodies. Ask a young scientist, and the question takes on a very earthly meaning.

Years of tight budgets and decreasing paylines at the National Institutes of Health have pushed the average age of first-time grant recipients to 42, effectively turning the entirety of scientists’ 20s and 30s into years of training and instability. At the same time, more than two-thirds of life sciences postdoctoral fellows are married, and more than one-third have children (1).

Young would-be academics must confront the two-body problem, balancing their spouse’s career aspirations with the mobility demanded by the postdoctoral training cycle. Finding solutions to the two-body problem has become paramount in ensuring the best scientists continue to fill the highest ranks of research.

Career Prospects and Tenure Track Postions

Career Prospects and Tenure Track Postions
The career prospects for biomedical postdocs are daunting. While the postdoctoral work force has tripled, the tenure-track positions have remained stagnant (adapted with permission from (2)).

A Dream Deferred

“People aren’t finding places where both partners can work,” says Kristofor Langlais, a postdoctoral genetics research fellow at the NIH. “Opportunities are practically nil.” Langlais and his wife are both Ph.D. scientists who have struggled to find tenure-track faculty positions in the same location. The lack of faculty jobs gradually has forced them both toward nonacademic careers.

Over the past 30 years, the number of biomedical postdoctoral researchers has more than tripled, while the number of tenured or tenure-track positions has remained virtually static (2). This imbalance has led to greatly increased competition and longer years of training as scientists amass the increased credentials required to earn a job. Statistics from the National Postdoctoral Association show that only 18 percent of recent graduates obtain such positions within six years of graduating (1). Researchers can expect to spend their 20s and 30s moving from their undergraduate school to a Ph.D. lab to one or more postdoctoral positions, relocating on average every four years.

Do scientists make different career choices after being fed up with the academic job market? “We certainly did,” says Langlais.

Like Langlais and his wife, Ph.D. scientists are increasingly turning to alternative careers. In 1972, nearly 70 percent of all biomedical Ph.D.s were employed in academic science. Today, that number has dwindled to 50 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of Ph.D.s employed in industry has more than doubled and now makes up roughly one-quarter of the postdoctoral biomedical work force. Part of the appeal of industry jobs may include the prospect for scientists to choose where they would like to live, perhaps finding a rewarding career in a place where their partner also is employed (2).


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